First, the airline. Love Air, which sounds a bit spirit of '68: 'Fly to Kathmandu on Love'. In fact, it was set up in 1981 by Nigel Harris, a former marketing manager for Mars and pilot for Royal Jordanian Airlines. After a decade of corporate work (including carrying organs for transplants), the company took over the scheduled service to Le Touquet in 1990. Mr Harris says the airline's name 'has the right feel about it for flights to France: To France with Love, Love is in the air . . .'
Second, the airport. For pounds 9.50, visitors to Biggin Hill can buy the complete history of the airport, with photographs. 'It was the pilots of the Second World War who called it 'The Bump',' says Bob Ogley in Biggin on the Bump. 'Returning from a sortie above the orchards, or a patrol over the Channel, they would fly across the Weald of Kent towards the chalk hills of the North Downs and, at the highest point, look for a terribly scarred concrete runway. This was Biggin Hill, 'home' until the next scramble. Just a tiny patchwork square of England, but a beautiful sight.' On a sunny June morning, even I (born 1964) felt nostalgic.
So tiny is Biggin Hill today that the man selling Biggin on the Bump appears also to be in charge of air traffic control, and the Love Air pilot doubled as the check-in person. Some underemployed men in blazers were sinking G&Ts at the bar (which also sells toast).
Everybody, pilots and passengers alike, parks next to the terminal, free of charge. It feels more like a golf club than an airport, though booze, fags and perfume are all available duty-free. (Get your francs in advance, however: there is no bureau de change.)
Love Air is the only scheduled flight out of Biggin Hill, leaving at a very civilised 9.30am every weekday; weekend departures are Friday 6.30pm, Saturday and Sunday 8.30am, and Sunday 4.30pm. Five tiny planes do the Le Touquet run: two five-seater Piper Senecas, one seven-seater Navajo and two nine- seater Chieftains, selected according to need. On busy weekends, a small convoy may cross the Channel.
The customer base, according to Nigel Harris, is 40 per cent sporting types (golf, tennis and horse-riding), 20 to 30 per cent romantic weekenders, and the remainder day-trippers. My day, a Tuesday, was atypical: three ladies, blonde, well-preserved, two of them clasping Harvey Nichols bags, clearly off for some serious shopping; and two men in suits, guests of Le Touquet tourist board. We gathered in the lounge, went straight through customs and passport control and strolled on to the airfield.
The two men sat at the back of the plane, the ladies in the middle seats facing each other and I volunteered to sit up front with the pilot, Mike. There is plenty of room for legs and luggage (15 kilos per person, a rule not strictly enforced), and even a loo on board. 'I dare you to use it,' said Nigel Harris. 'It's under the back seat.'
While Mike was flipping switches on the low-tech control panel (I had to resist the temptation to join in), we got acquainted. 'Ex-US Army,' said Mike. 'They stopped me flying in 1990, so I left.' I smiled, weakly. 'Did a tour of a duty in 'Nam, in '68,' said Mike. Wasn't that the year of the Tet offensive, and when Apocalypse Now was set? 'Ho, ho, ho,' said Mike.
Further conversation was prevented by background noise: Mike gunned the engine and up we drove, taking off rather like Herbie, the flying VW Beetle in the Seventies films. Cruising at 2,500ft, you can see the cows: 'Just a tiny patchwork square of England, but a beautiful sight.'
We phut-phutted gently into France 40 minutes later. Le Touquet airport is even tinier than Biggin Hill: it was quite deserted apart from us. The suits and the shoppers were whisked away by taxi; I decided to take my first opportunity to leave an airport on foot. 'Just keep the sun behind you,' advised Mike. 'Eta: 20 minutes.' I struck out through suburban woodland (known by the local tourist board as 'forest') with a skip instead of a compass.
Mike's sense of direction, on land if not in the air, turned out to be a little shaky. Though I was happy to be on Avenue de Picardie, this road takes you on a lonely trip along the edge of Le Touquet, past the Centre Equestre and, eventually, to the yachting quay. I recommend, instead, the direct route into town, Avenue des Canadiens (which becomes, in turn, the Avenue du Chateau, du Verger and then Saint Jean).
Le Touquet was developed as a smart resort in the Twenties and Thirties, a kind of Cannes du Nord. Much of it is unchanged; indeed, as a display of ugly Art Deco architecture, it may be unrivalled. Forget the smooth aerodynamic lines of Thirties New York; here are holiday homes featuring portholes and thatched roofs, Hansel and Gretel cottages with nautical balconies. It feels like Surrey on acid.
There are architectural gems, however: as the suburbs give way to the civic centre, there is the beautiful interior of the Palais de l'Europe, filled with waltzing pensioners when I was there. A block or two further along is the spectacular Westminster Hotel - where, through Love Air, you can stay for from pounds 151 per person, including return flight from Biggin Hill, transfer from Le Touquet airport and Continental breakfast.
Along Avenue Saint Jean are the smart boutiques (including Sonia Rykiel) and a small, family-run restaurant called La Petite Charlotte, which is commended in food guides but was, sadly, closed for two weeks' holiday when I was there last month. (Some of the shops were also closed, since it was a Tuesday.) To compensate, I visited Au Chat Bleu at 47 Rue Saint Jean, a chocolatier-confiseur (with other branches in Lille and Paris) which offers an overwhelming choice of goodies, handmade on the premises and displayed in glass cabinets and in row after row of glass jars.
Round the corner in Rue de Metz is the renowned fish restaurant, Perard. I found its fish soup a little unexciting, but the monkfish au gratin with sorrel puree in a pastry boat was heaven. With green salad, water and a glass of delicious house white, the lunch cost Fr141 (about pounds 17). Next door is the poissonnerie where the soup is made, in giant metal vats. I bought a jar of crab soup (lobster is also available) for the beautiful label alone.
And, finally, to the huge, clean sandy beach. I ignored the ugly developments of holiday apartments and waded through the low-tide mud to collect shells and anenome husks. At high tide, I fell asleep on a rock, unpestered by local lads - Le Touquet is not that kind of resort.
As the sun dipped I strolled back to the aiport, to catch the 6.30pm run back to Biggin Hill. Mike was waiting for us in an armchair.
Love Air is on 0279 681434 (reservations), 0279 681435 (enquiries). Return fares to Le Touquet: Apex return pounds 97 (bookable seven days in advance), economy pounds 125. There is a supplement of pounds 15 payable for Saturday nights at the Westminster Hotel.
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